Nearly three years before Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd as he cried out that he couldn’t breathe last May, Zoya Code found herself in a similar position: handcuffed facedown on the ground, with Chauvin’s knee on her.
The officer had answered a call of a domestic dispute at her home, and Code said he forced her down when she tried to pull away.
“He just stayed on my neck,” Code said, ignoring her desperate pleas to get off. Frustrated and upset, she challenged him to press harder. “Then he did. Just to shut me up,” she said.
Last week, a judge in Minnesota ruled that prosecutors could present the details of her 2017 arrest in their case against the former officer, who was charged with second-degree unintentional murder in Floyd’s death.
Code’s case was one of six arrests as far back as 2015 that the Minnesota attorney general’s office sought to introduce, arguing that they showed how Chauvin was using excessive force when he restrained people — by their necks or by kneeling on top of them — just as he did in arresting Floyd. Police records show that Chauvin was never formally reprimanded for any of these incidents, even though at least two of those arrested said they had filed formal complaints.
Of the six people arrested, two were Black, one was Latino and one was Native American. The race of two others was not included in the arrest reports that reporters examined.
Discussing the encounters publicly for the first time in interviews with The Marshall Project, three people who were arrested by Chauvin and a witness in a fourth incident described him as an unusually rough officer who was quick to use force and callous about their pain.
The interviews provide new insight into the history of a police officer whose handling of Floyd’s arrest, captured on video, was seen around the world and sparked months of protests in dozens of cities.
Chauvin, who was fired, has said through his attorney that his handling of Floyd’s arrest was a reasonable use of authorized force. But he was the subject of at least 22 complaints or internal investigations during his more than 19 years at the department, only one of which resulted in discipline. These new interviews show not only that he may have used excessive force in the past, but that he had used startlingly similar techniques.
All four people who told of their encounters with Chauvin had a history of run-ins with law enforcement, mostly for traffic and nonviolent offenses.
Code’s arrest occurred June 25, 2017. In a court filing, Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, said the officer acted properly in the case, responding to “a violent crime in a volatile situation.” He said that “there was nothing unreasonable or unauthorized about Mr. Chauvin’s actions.”
Code’s mother had accused her of trying to choke her with an extension cord, according to the arrest report. Code said in an interview that her mother was swinging the cord around, and that she merely grabbed hold of it.
She said she had left the house to cool off after the fight and when she returned, Chauvin and his partner had arrived. In the prosecutors’ description, based on Chauvin’s report and body-camera video, Chauvin told Code she was under arrest and grabbed her arm. When she pulled away, he pulled her to the ground face first and knelt on her. The two officers then picked her up and carried her outside the house, facedown.
There, prosecutors said, Chauvin knelt on the back of the handcuffed woman “even though she was offering no physical resistance at all.”
Code, in an interview, said she began pleading: “Don’t kill me.”
At that point, according to the prosecutors’ account, Chauvin told his partner to restrain Code’s ankles as well, though she “was not being physically aggressive.”
As he tied her, she said, she told the other officer, “You’re learning from an animal. That man — that’s evilness right there.”
Misdemeanor domestic assault and disorderly conduct charges filed against Code were ultimately dropped.
‘You’re Choking Me’
The earliest incident in which prosecutors said Chauvin used excessive force took place Feb. 15, 2015, when he arrested Julian Hernandez — a carpenter who was on a road trip to Minneapolis to see a band at the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub. Chauvin worked as an off-duty security officer there for almost 17 years.
The arrest report filed by Chauvin said Hernandez tried to leave the club through the wrong door, and Chauvin stopped him and escorted him down a stairwell. Hernandez said in an interview that he had been drinking, but felt like Chauvin was pushing him down the stairs.
Outside, Hernandez said, “things escalated.”
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